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20th Century Limited 

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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North by Northwest has just been rereleased in a crisp new print that only enhances the adventures of protagonist Roger O. Thornhill as he traverses the United States of America. The movie is Alfred Hitchcock's wittiest excursion into espionage, a shining example of Esquire magazine, Eisenhower-era elegance.

It has to be. North by Northwest is about an adman so fragrant with success and well-being and the smug self-certainty that comes with them that it's inevitable that a higher power (implied by the film's many God's-eye view camera angles) will emerge from nowhere and say: La dolce vita, eh, buddy boy? Take this. Who better to embody this Madison Avenue smooth talker than the coolest customer of the globally inclined postwar era, Cary Grant? And how better to encapsulate his world than in an Ernest Lehman screenplay dripping with bons mots and attitude? In such a setting, elegance is a given: in the richly sconced Plaza Hotel, on the thickly carpeted 20th Century Limited, in the Ambassador East and the Frank Lloyd Wright mountain retreat, and in all the other (now fashionably retro) emblems of gray flannel affluence.

These thoughts meandered through my consciousness during dinner at the Fifth Floor, the elegant new restaurant above Market Street's Old Navy. From the moment you step into the intricately parquet tiled lobby of the Palomar Hotel (the restaurant's mise en scène) and ascend the required number of levels via an equally lush elevator, you feel like a welcome guest in another, street level-discrete milieu. The whole getaway ambience continues as you stroll through lovely, indirectly lit examples of Japanese interior design (complete with rock garden) to the venue's 23-seat bar, a handsome space in deep browns and yellows. It's the perfect spot to enjoy an ice-cold Gibson ($7.50): The restaurant's entire aesthetic is distilled into this one cocktail. Its vessel is a sleek, singular example of martini-glass engineering; its contents are precisely mixed and inviting; and, since the only thing that distinguishes a Gibson from a martini is its pickled onions, it must be pointed out that these onions (three of 'em!) are sweeter than any others in my considerable experience.

Making your way to your table beneath bronze and alabaster chandeliers and through dining rooms dripping with ebony, burnished silver, and gold leaf, you notice that everyone seems vaguely important -- even you. Because, although the atmosphere hums with chic and the sort of latent power you associate with another Hitchcock hangout, the late, great Ernie's, everyone from the doorman to the bartender to the maitre d' to the waiter seems absolutely delighted that you've arrived and that you'll be gracing the red-leather-and-velvet, silk-portiered setting for the next several hours. As a result, this lush hideaway doesn't seem to forbid laughter and bonhomie. Even the chairs -- mohair velvet in early deco -- are pleasantly luxurious.

The menu (its silky binding is as tactile as the chairs) reflects Executive Chef George Morrone's CIA-trained, Aqua-tempered sensibility. Three kinds of tuna (ahi, hamachi, and big eye) are tartared up and dressed with Normandy apple vinegar ($13). Foie gras is served with vanilla beans and balsamic plums ($16). Suckling pig comes complete with terrine à pig trotters ($28). And if you want the complete expense-account experience, there's caviar service ($75 for beluga, $55 for osetra) and, on the specials menu the night of our visit, the legendarily supple Kobe beef paired with truffles ($65).

We started with a complimentary tidbit -- an eggshell filled with a light, rich flan ribboned with salmon and topped with caviar. This was followed by two examples of Morrone's geometric flair: a delicate Sonoma quail ($12), seared and smoky, offset by a banner of crisp smoked bacon flying at right angles to dollops of par- snip purée; and a fillet of smoked rainbow trout ($11) wrapped into a cone, filled with wild greens, and set upon a bed of horseradish-edged diced beets. Both starters were made more interesting by their contrasts of crisp and soft, sweet and tangy, rich and bracing.

Even more striking was the poached Maine lobster ($36), which arrived at table as a briny pyramid, its antennae reaching for the aforementioned chandeliers. As a native San Franciscan, I hate to admit that anything's better than Dungeness crab, but this lobster, sweet and rich and succulent, took the prize. As befits such a fashionable establishment, nothing so gauche as bibs and nutcrackers was necessary here: The meat was displayed in its reconstituted shell, which you disassembled like Lego sculpture to get at the meat. White corn and vermouth essence accompanied the crustacean.

The duet of beef and lamb Wellington ($32) was exactly that: two slices of rich, flaky pastry, one enclosing a delicate mixture of lamb and spices, the other filled with a stronger beef composition, neither of them completely memorable. The stars here were the three accompanying china pots of mashed potato: one tinged with horseradish (for the beef), one redolent of extra-virgin olive oil (for the lamb), and one a spicy purée of sweet potato and spices (for the hell of it, I suppose).

Dessert featured another buffet in miniature: two little pots of freshly made ice cream ($8), barely cool (just the way I like it), one a luscious vanilla, the other a butter pecan studded with whole nutmeats, arranged Japanese-style on a porcelain platter with miniature wedges of lemon-curd tart (bracing and palate-cleansing) and pecan tart (rich, meaty, and not too sweet). A big scoop of raspberry sorbet ($8), tart and refreshing and served up in a positively sculptural china vessel with a lightly spiced pineapple soup, concluded the meal admirably.

Sommelier Rajat Parr's 250-item wine list reflects a real effort to pair good food with fine vintages, with Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the locals especially well represented. The by-the-glass selections alone ($7 to $15 each) are impressive: three champagnes for people who know their bubbly; six whites ranging from Martine's Viognier to a Loimer Gruner Veltliner; seven full-bodied, food-friendly reds; and three sweet wines, including a Château Lafaurie Peyraguey sauterne. Half-glass tastes are available as well. Just don't overindulge -- that crop-duster could have your name on it.

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Matthew Stafford

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